How to talk to children about sex education? #Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D.

Question: "A couple of years ago, when my daughter was in fifth grade, she had a "sex education" component in her health class. I even saw the workbook they used. It was pretty good, discussing the physiological differences between genders as well as some of the emotional and peer- pressure issues.
After she finished this in school I asked her if she had any questions. She seemed embarrassed and really didn't want to discuss it with me. Now that she is headed for the seventh grade I feel a responsibility to revisit the subject with her, but I'm concerned that she will be embarrassed again and that I won't handle it very well.
Several times over the past year I've tried discussing sex with her and she either changes the subject or tells me that she "knows everything" from the school program or her friends. I really don't want to force her to listen to a lecture that she's uncomfortable with but I would like to make sure that she understands the realities of sex in this day and age.
"What's the best way to go about this with a 12-year-old?"

Answer: Most kids have the opportunity to experience a sex education lesson or program somewhere in their late grade school or early middle school curriculum. Usually, the course is fairly comprehensive and focuses not only upon physiological changes but also on emotions, peer pressure and sexual diseases.
This can be excellent information, but only if your child is paying attention. Some do -- and gain quite a bit from the school presentation -- while others are either too giggly with embarrassment to focus, or they feel that they already know it all.
Overall, I've found that one of the best ways to handle this ticklish issue is to back up the information the school has presented with an age-appropriate book (or books) on the subject. Most book stores carry excellent publications that are written and illustrated on a level that your child can understand. In addition, many of these books pose and deal with the typical questions that a twelve-year-old may be too embarrassed to ask.
After you purchase the book, make sure that you present it to her in such a way that she doesn't think of it is an assignment or a chore to read. I would simply hand it to your daughter and note that she can read it for general and specific information and that you highly encourage her to do so. Also, suggest that the two of you can read it together. Perhaps you've already read it and can note certain areas that you thought that the two of you need to address jointly. Encourage her to read it on her own also--you may be surprised at how dog-eared the pages will become if you leave the reading of the book to her own time and discretion!
Second, let your child know that when she has questions about sex -- or anything at all for that matter, that you are available at any time to discuss them. Try to emphasize that you'll do your best to be non-judgmental. Also, let her know that her friends' answers and opinions may not be accurate and could lead to big trouble. Hopefully, she'll believe that your knowledge of sex is at least as adequate as is her friend's knowledge and will feel comfortable that your answers will be correct.
Let her know as well that there are no "silly" questions when it comes to this topic. Even though you may not know an answer, tell her that you will research it and discuss it with her. Make it clear that her questions will not result in nagging or a lecture, but that you'll make a sincere attempt to answer her concerns.
One of the keys to handling this subject is to keep it "on topic" -- kids' questions about sex are usually quite specific and they want specific answers. Pre-teens and teens desire knowledge about petting, diseases, consequences of actions, and how to prevent pregnancy. Some are concerned about the moral, religious and ethical implications of sexual interaction such as gaining a bad reputation, whether to have sex before marriage or how long to wait before becoming sexually active with a boyfriend. Others, though, may skip the value and character issues and just be concerned about not getting a disease or becoming pregnant.
Keep in mind, though, that most middle-scholars are interested in what's happening to their bodies (puberty) rather than actual sexual acts. However, oral sex has become more prevalent in both the middle and high school years. I would suggest that you have a heart-to-heart talk with your child about your expectations about her male-female relationship behavior, and if it comes up, your take on the oral sex issue also. This includes kissing and petting behaviors and at what age you believe these to be appropriate. I would make a strong statement about how you feel that true sexual behavior at her age is not acceptable but that you are more than willing to answer all questions and to discuss the consequences of sexual behavior if she wishes.
It's a fine line between coming across as judgmental versus letting your child know where you stand on teen sex. Be clear, concise, and stand by your convictions. As a psychologist, I firmly believe that pre-teen and teen sexual behavior often lead to poor reputations, pregnancies, depression and a multitude of problems. Let your child know where you stand on this issue, but also let her know that you are open to discussion, information gathering and questions.


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